ONE DAY AFTER the historic Sally Ride died in California, Google salutes another high-flying American heroine who defied both gravity and convention.
Today’s homepage Doodle depicts Amelia Earhart, the first great aviatrix, climbing into the cockpit of her Lockheed Vega monoplane — the same aircraft now housed by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The artwork celebrates the 115th anniversary of Earhart's birth.
Ride, of course, became in 1983 the first American woman in space. That was a half-century after Earhart, also while in her 30s, became the first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight, trailblazing the way for generations of heroes.
Our fascination with Earhart — the adventurer eternal, the Kansas tomboy turned “Lady Lindy,” the aviation icon so seemingly approachable yet perpetually elusive — only gains altitude this month, 75 years after her mysterious disappearance over the Pacific while trying to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
To mark that anniversary, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington opened the exhibit “One Life: Amelia Earhart” on June 29. For the viewer, the show is curated to be navigated like smart, well-designed instrumentation.
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The exhibit begins, the gallery says, with a 1903 portrait of Earhart at age 5 or 6, wearing “a frilly, white frock,” large bow in her hair. We remember: This was only about four years before young Amelia would see her first plane at a state fair and, according to her descendants, declare that “it was thing of rusty wire and wood and looked not at all interesting.” It wouldn’t be till 1920 -- the dawn of her Soaring ‘20s -- that the flying bug would take hold, while only several hundred feet off the ground. She took her first flying lesson the next year, and within months bought her first plane.
Moving forward, the exhibit spotlights a photograph that, the gallery says, “shows Earhart standing with Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, the two men who piloted the flight that earned Earhart the distinction of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic by airplane.” That 21-hour flight turned Earhart into a global celebrity, a rock star of the skies. She herself felt sheepish, though, not having piloted the journey, instead feeling rather like a backseat “sack of potatoes.”
As a woman driven not to take a backseat to history, Earhart let her trailblazing spirit be her guide. As a website overseen by her descendants illuminates, she “kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in predominantly male-oriented fields, including film direction and production, law, advertising, management, and mechanical engineering.” (Speaking of film, Earhart has been portrayed by numerous women on the screen, including Diane Keaton and -- just in 2009 alone -- both Amy Adams [”Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian”] and Hilary Swank [”Amelia”].)
The portrait gallery then navigates, it says, to “a selection of video and audio footage” that spotlights, in her humble way, the pioneer who in 1932 -- five years after Lindbergh -- became the first woman and second person to solo the Atlantic. That feat garnered her a National Geographic Society gold medal and, from Congress, the first Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to a woman. But more important to Earhart, the accomplishment proved men and women were equal in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness and willpower,” according to her family’s official site.
The achievement linked “Lady Lindy” with Lindy himself in the public consciousness. As Gore Vidal once said of the transcendent celebrity of Earhart and Lindbergh: “They were like gods from outer space,”
The portrait gallery says that “one of the last photographs taken of Earhart during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe shows the pilot shortly before she vanished on July 2, 1937” — what the curator calls “a quiet picture.”
Such an image highlights the fact that we continue to look still for Earhart’s final resting place (as well as that of Fred Noonan, the navitagor on that fatal flight). We think about how on Monday, yet another attempt to find her wreckage came up empty. This $2.2-million expedition, the Associated Press reported yesterday, was “on its way back to Hawaii without the dramatic, conclusive plane images searchers were hoping to attain.” The president of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery told the AP that he still believes Earhart crashed onto a reef off a remote South Pacific island.
We are haunted by Earhart’s final radio transmission: “We are running north and south.” And we pause today to remember that immediately after her disappearance, the U.S. government spent about $4-million exhaustively looking for Earhart or her wreckage before declaring her dead in absentia two years later.
She was survived by husband George Putnam. According to her family’s official website, Earhart left Putnam a last letter, in case she didn’t return from a voyage. It reads:
“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
The challenge rings as eternal as the memory of Earhart, whose life is too inspiring ever to fly under history’s radar.